Wednesday, November 2, 2011

U.S. Air Force To Upgrade 300 F-16s

The U.S. Air Force will upgrade between 300 and 350 F-16C Block 40 and 50 fighters with new avionics and increased airframe life, a three-star general said before Congress.
Testifying Nov. 2, Lt. Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, Air Force deputy chief for operations, plans and requirements, also said the service doesn't have enough trained UAV pilots, and that the U-2 isn't quite ready for retirement.
"You hear an announcement fairly quickly from the United States Air Force, we're going to [service life extension program (SLEP)] and avionics modernize probably in the vicinity 300 to 350 F-16s,".
That number could climb to 600 aircraft, Carlisle said, but it is not likely the Air Force will have to upgrade so many jets.
The modernized jets will be crucial to maintaining the Air National Guard (ANG) and Air Force Reserve fighter force. It will also help maintain the Air Force's dwindling arsenal of tactical fighters before the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) becomes operational.
Although the service doesn't yet know when the F-35 will become operational, the aircraft will likely miss the current projected date of 2016. The aircraft will likely become fully operational in 2018, Carlisle said, but the service is not naming an official date until the new master schedule is complete.
There is money in fiscal 2012 budget to develop a modernization program for the F-16, Carlisle said. The Air Force will start developing the avionics modernization plan soon, he said.
Maj. Gen. Jay Lindell, Air Force director of global power programs, said the airframe life of the F-16 would be increased from 8,000 to "at least" 10,000 hours. That would afford the Air Force eight more years of operations using the old aircraft, he said.
"We're looking at capability through the next decade, which would be through 2030," Lindell said.
Each plane would cost $9.4 million, he said, so the Air Force wants to get its money's worth.
The scope of the modernization plan for the F-16 fleet and the fielding of the stealthy new F-35 depends on the forthcoming integrated master schedule for the new jet, Carlisle said. The F-35 will be fielded to ANG units, starting with the Vermont ANG, he said.
With the upgrades, the F-16 could be serving for decades to come.
The Navy and Marine Corps are also working on extending the life of 150 of their F/A-18 Hornets, said Marine Lt. Gen. Terry Robling, the U.S. Marine Corps' deputy commandant for aviation. The upgraded F/A-18s are slated to hold the sea services over until the F-35 becomes operational.
Pilots for UAVs
In his testimony, Carlisle said the Air Force doesn't have enough pilots for its growing fleet of drones. He said the service was on its sixth surge for providing Predator and Reaper combat air patrols (CAPs). But to attain the required 60 CAPs, the Air Force has had to press instructor pilots into active service and shut down its elite Weapons School course for the unmanned planes, he said.
"Our issue today is our ability to train our sensor operators and pilots," Carlisle said.
The Air Force will likely have to ratchet down the number of CAPs to reconstitute its ability to train and field new unmanned aircraft pilots, he said. The community has grown quickly; it is now the single largest group of aviators in the service.
Reconstituting the training force and rebuilding the expertise at the Weapons School will take about a year, Carlisle said. Once the Air Force can rebuild its schoolhouses, the Air Force can get back on track to fielding 65 CAPs as required by the forces deployed in combat.
No Retirement for U-2
Of the Air Force's U-2 spy planes, Carlisle said the Air Force won't be retiring them until a technical shortcoming with the RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude unmanned aircraft is resolved.
Although the Air Force plans to replace the venerable U-2 with the new unmanned aircraft, the Global Hawk's sensors are still not capable of measuring up to the standards set by the five-decade old Dragon Lady.
"The Global Hawk, the RQ-4, will be the replacement," Carlisle said. "It is not there yet. The sensors suite is not there. It cannot match what the U-2 does."
There is a high-altitude transition team, but the U-2 will be maintained until the Global Hawk can match the older plane. With the sensors on the Block 40 Global Hawk, the unmanned plane will "start to get close to that," Carlisle said.
The U-2 will be around through 2014 and 2015, but the Global Hawk should be able to start matching its capabilities by then, he said.

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